Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Symbols of the Presidency

Three years ago today Enrique Peña Nieto was sworn in as president of Mexico. In photos of that event, many of which will be re-printed today, he’ll be shown with the presidential sash (banda presidencial) worn over his suit coat.

Law dictates that the sash is green, white and red and has the national seal embroidered on it. It also defines how the president wears the sash — over his right shoulder, with the red on top.

It is to be worn under his suit coat unless it’s his first or last day in office — on those days he shares it with his predecessor or successor. Transfer of power is symbolically represented by the outgoing president handing the sash to his successor.

Though Mexico’s president may wear the sash at his discretion, there are days on which law specifies he must wear it. He wears it when giving the president’s annual report to Congress, he wears it on the night of the 15th of September when presiding over the commemoration of the Grito de Dolores (the Shout of Independence), and he must wear it when he receives letters of credence from foreign ambassadors.

The sash is one of two political emblems in Mexico that are synonymous to the presidency. The other is a chair.

The President’s high backed armchair is probably the grandest chair in Mexico. Referred to as La Silla Presidencial (The Presidential Chair), it has the eagle from the shield of Mexico at the top of its arched backrest.

The official photograph of President Peña Nieto that hangs in all federal government offices shows him sitting in the Presidential Chair wearing the sash.

The most famous photograph of the chair is probably one taken when it was occupied during the Revolution, fleetingly, by one who was never president — Pancho Villa. Emiliano Zapata sits beside him in a much simpler chair.

Photography historian John Mraz refers to this photograph as one of three iconic photos of the Mexican Revolution. Another is the full-figure portrait of Emiliano Zapata, leader of the Liberating Army of the South, wearing what appears to be a presidential sash – but isn’t.

The third iconic photo of the Revolution has neither a sash nor a chair. It’s an unposed and stunning photo of a woman leaning out of a train car with a rifle over her shoulder.

In 1914, Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata converged on Mexico City with their respective armies. They occupied the National Palace and posed for a photo with their officers. There was only one Presidential Chair but two leaders of two armies — Villa’s División del Norte and Zapata’s, Ejercito Libertador del Sur.

The oft-repeated story is that Villa offered Zapata the Presidential Chair. Zapata refused saying he didn’t want to sit in the chair so recently vacated by Porfirio Diaz. “It’s too tainted by corruption.”
Not only did Zapata refuse to sit in the Presidential Chair but he is reputed to have said he did not aspire to the presidency. Yet, his bestknown photographic portrait — a black and white photograph taken in 1911 — shows a dapper Zapata dressed as a charro, wearing a five-striped sash draped over his left shoulder. Diego Rivera copied from that photo when he portrayed Zapata in his murals in Cuernavaca’s Cortez Palace.

However, Rivera added color. He gave the photographed five-striped sash the presidential colors. He painted Zapata’s sash with red stripes at the top and bottom, a green stripe in the middle and white stripes between. The presidential sash has only three stripes.

From John Mraz, I learned Zapata was actually wearing a state of Morelos sash. By wearing it, Zapata was indicating he was the authority in the state with the right to appoint government officials.
The sash is no longer used in Morelos and I haven’t been able to determine what colors were on it, but even if they were the same as the national green, white, and red, when Zapata wore them they were state colors — hence it was not a presidential sash.

According to Mraz, the sash is the one worn by Revolutionary General Manuel D. Asúnsulo when he, with Emiliano Zapata at his side, peacefully entered and occupied Cuernavaca in 1911. After General Asunsolo’s death Zapata assumed the sash.

Though General Asúnsulo was photographed with the sash over his right shoulder, Zapata wears it over his left shoulder in his famous portrait.

Did Zapata not think that was a matter of importance? Or did he put on the sash while looking at himself in a mirror thinking he was wearing it just as General Asúnsulo had? Or is the photograph reversed left to right?

I like tradition. Today would be a good day for President Peña Nieto to wear the sash – on the third anniversary of his inauguration. Under his suit coat, of course.

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